The Bars of Irony
It can be hard to write when life is coming at you like a howling wind. Sometimes you know what you need to do and sometimes it doesn’t matter. When you step out on the highway you let the road take you where it wants to go or you will never get there. The hard part is knowing when you’ve arrived. In the midst of so much chaos, it can be hard to find the center, because everything is in motion, nothing remains the same. The city you once knew has become strange again, people move on, and beneath the surface is a fever that one can feel through the pavement, a fever that is always raging and yet is never seen. People go about their business as if nothing is happening, as if the world was not unraveling.
One can feel that something is different, different in a new and terrible sort of way. California seems far away and long ago, merging with all of the other places and all of the other moments in a seamless fabric of time. Yet it was only September and summer was still lingering in the hills above San Francisco. Now, on the other side of the continent it seems as far away as China. Out here is the war, and here too is the hope. What we are hoping for cannot be explained. Those who try sound like madmen raging into a storm.
The ordeal. Yes, it was an ordeal. I must explain. What had seemed like just another arrest scenario, one I had been through dozens of times, this time it spiraled out of control, as each moment the stakes were raised, each new card revealing another test, and the pot grew to a small fortune. And it was a game, a test of wills, an opportunity to speak the truth. It was all those things and more, and yet, when all is said and done it was just a simple protest.
I had planned to do a public fast on the steps of the West Virginia State capitol for Thanksgiving week. James McGuinniss and I had made the trip to Kayford Mountain, or what used to be Kayford Mountain, the week earlier to look at the devastation that is Mountaintop Removal and to get a few buckets of the debris that falls out of the sky after they blast off the top of a mountain. This is not the dust that rains down on Rock Creek after the daily explosions on the strip mine above my house. Yet it is part of the same mountain. The dust that travels is far deadlier, and there had already been enough research done to determine that. We simply wanted to deliver it to the State Capitol.
The Governor and the Legislature had so far ignored all of the peer reviewed medical studies that showed the link between this blasting and the health of our community, which has the highest mortality rate in the US. We were going to provoke them to arrest us here at the State Capitol — with the dust — so they would have to take it into custody, as evidence.
I had started the fast on Saturday because the reflex to eat when hungry is very strong and you just never know if you’re up for a fast until it is underway for a while. By Monday I was sure enough that I could go for nine days on just water, and indeed I had done it once before. The last time I had dropped 40 pounds that I never regained. I did not have another forty to give up this time and was therefore heading into uncharted territory. I was hoping to complete my fast in jail.
On Monday before Thanksgiving, Guinn and I began our vigil on the steps of the Capitol, choosing the replica of the Liberty Bell as our back drop. Few passersby paid any notice. We waited for curfew at six thirty. Nothing happened. A television station and two newspapers sent reporters. We showed them the dust. I threw it up in the air. The State Troopers watched from a distance but took no action. We got cold. Eventually we went back to our apartment and waited for the next day. Tuesday was wet and cold. We stayed as late as we could. We came back on Wednesday. And then back again on Thursday. Thanksgiving.
For Thanksgiving we had planned to do something different. Before returning to the Liberty Bell replica for our vigil we would walk the few blocks to the Governor’s Mansion and bring him a dust sample as a present. We
would ask him to test it and get back to us. We had a note for him in the jar. I rang the doorbell and was soon swarmed by a dozen or so State Troopers. After a surreal exchange about what to do with our sample, I put it on the doorstep and was immediately arrested. I was not told why.
The cops walked me around to the back of the Mansion and put me in a car. I watched as the Troopers looked through the West Virginia Criminal Code and read different pages. They passed the book around, each cop seeming to have his own opinion on what law I broke. Eventually they drove me away towards the jail, but they were left behind, still standing in the parking lot looking at that book.
“Why don’t you guys just cite and release me?” I asked the two cops. “Can’t do that, we got orders to bring you in,” they replied. This news made me happy. It was now Thursday and I had had only water since Saturday. I was already feeling a little light headed, but otherwise alert, and I had plenty of energy.
I was ready. Take me!
I was read my Miranda rights by the young State Trooper who sat in the front seat of the cruiser with my arresting officer. They said they were just getting ready to go home for Thanksgiving dinner when the call came to bring me in. They mentioned this several times. I was trying to explain to them why I thought I had to be arrested, because they had asked. Don’t they teach these cops about non violent civil disobedience in the police Academy? Why do I have to do it now? Why can’t they understand a word I’m saying? I had already given up my right to remain silent in this car, but it was getting me nowhere. Feeling my oats, I boasted, “Tomorrow I’ll be in the news and then I am going to sue you for false arrest.” I added, “You just hooked a big fish. Now let’s see if you can get him in the boat.”
The media was not at first interested. Just another protestor, but in a day or so they would take notice. The phones at the jail and at the Governor’s office and mansion were ringing off their respective hooks with calls coming in from around the world. They would continue ringing even as I was standing at the counter in the booking station gathering up my belongings and putting them in my pockets. Every call was the same: Free Mike Roselle!
At no time did I give up my freedom. The secret to a good action is actually staying in jail for as long as you can. Nowadays they don’t want you in there so they write you a ticket and send you home. I was having none of that. I was planning to stay for the Holidays! These cops had no idea.
The Western Regional Jail is a marvel of modern prison design, employing all the latest technology. I was searched a second and then a third time, and placed in the holding cell for further processing. The cell was 12 foot by 12 foot with a continuous cement bench on two of the walls and the combo toilet/sink/drinking fountain that one always sees in jail. For most of my three days stay in this room I would be accompanied by 11 other men, each one on a plastic mattress. The floor and the benches were not enough room for that many, so the unlucky ones would have to fold their mattresses in half and try not to roll off and fall onto their cellmates below. Usually one is held in a cell such as this one for only a few hours. Arraignments were scheduled twice a day via video screen, and went on for four hours a session. They would often go until midnight. Getting out usually requires only a signature or a small bond. If you can’t make bail or get signed out you go to the pod, the 32 bunk unit where you will serve your time. There you will have your own bunk in a two person cell. It can be quite a relief to get to the pod after a night in the tank.
The Bull was barking at me, trying to get my attention. “Your arraignment is happening, come with me!”
“No!” I replied, “Not until I have spoken with my attorney.”
He convinced me somehow to at least talk to the Magistrate, who appeared on the large flat screen display in the hearing room. I told him the same thing I told the Bull.
“Mr. Roselle,” said the man on the large flat screen, “we cannot release you until you have been arraigned.”
“Your Honor,” I said, “I do not want to be released. I want the charges dropped! I should have never been arrested.”
“If you wish to contest the charges, you can, but you can’t be released until you are arraigned,” he repeated.
“Can I go now.” It was more of a statement than a question. I went back to the tank and by now it was about midnight.
Back in the tank it was hard to explain to my cell mates what I had done. At this point I had no idea that my bail would be set at $20,000. I tried to go to sleep but it was next to impossible with the door opening and closing all night, people dragging their mattress in, and then back out. Screaming drunks, a homeless man who did nothing but yell, a club hopping gangster that did nothing but talk and later two poor fellows who would spend each and every weekend in this tank because they failed a drug test. (Somehow they could sleep through all of this or maybe they were just pretending). But black, white, rich, poor, there we were all together and we made the best of it. Stories were told, friends recalled, sympathy shared, there was more fellowship in this cell then I’ve seen in most churches. The sound of laughter could be heard in the halls along with the clanging and rattling that is the sound of all jails.
Morning came and again my name was called. The Bull is standing over me in the cell. “Come on Roselle! We are going to see the Magistrate!”
“Not until I talk to my lawyer!” I shot back. “I ain’t talking to none of you people until I talk to my lawyer.” The Bull left. The Big Hillbilly Outlaw laying next to me utters his first words since being thrown in. “Dude? How did you do that?” he asked. “I’m not sure,” I replied, “I don’t even have a lawyer.”
On Friday morning I was allowed a phone call. I called my house. Someone picked up and got the recording that it was a collect call from the jail. My phone provider, Sudden-link, did not allow for collect calls under any condition. The line went dead! I would get another call on Saturday. No problem, I thought. My support crew would have this problem sorted out by then. Back to the tank for another night of clanging and banging. I was still not eating, but not making a big deal about it. I took my tray when it arrived, and gave it away. Refusing the tray was difficult to explain to my cell mates, who were always hungry. It did not look edible anyway.
After 72 hours in the tank the clock had run out on the jailers. Under no circumstances should a person be held in the tank longer than that. I was told by the Bull that I was being moved to a new cell. I was allowed to shower for the first time. A cold shower. Those bastards have plenty of hot water but they want you to shiver. Indeed I had been cold for most of the time in the tank. The cells have vents and the Bulls control the temperature. If you are cold, it is because they want you to be. After another strip search, another ass search, a shower and some new orange jail clothes I felt pretty good. I was taken down the hall towards the pods, those 16 cell units that normally house 32 prisoners. This pod, to my surprise, held 16 prisoners, the disciplinary cases from the other pods. I was being put in the hole!
And what a nice hole it was! It was as big as my last cell, but there was only me. I had a plastic mattress and one thin blanket. It was early and my lunch tray had arrived but for the first time I refused it. The trustee did not notice, and I could hear the wheels of the meal cart rolling down the halls. I tried to get some sleep but it was too cold. I asked through the intercom for another blanket. No response. Dinner came at five and I sent away another tray, and again the trustee didn’t notice. The blanket was not long enough to cover me so I curled up and prepared myself for the night ahead. Tomorrow would be Monday and I would get another chance at a phone call. The lights did not go out. They were bright. My window was now useless, except you could feel the cold air slipping down the glass and onto my bunk. Nothing to read. No glasses.
A Baptist Minister sticks his birdlike nose in the hole in my door. “Do ya need anything?” he asked. “How about a blanket?” I responded. “Oh, I can’t do that,” he replied, confirming my suspicions that I was in a punishment cell and that rules were rules. “Ok, well how about getting me a copy of the Koran in English?” “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. I never saw him again.
By now I had been fasting for over a week and had had no sleep since Tuesday night. Freezing, I sat cross legged and wore the blanket like a robe, covering my head. I decided I was a Russian Orthodox Monk in his cell. I was here by choice. This cell was mine. There was no place else I wanted to be. I did want another blanket, but otherwise I was free from desire. I was near death, could feel death, was OK with death, but I had no desire to die. I was losing touch with my mind. Discipline! Discipline! This is no time to get all wobbly. Brrrrrr….
Morning came and so did another tray. We sent it on its merry way with the trustee, who still did not notice anything unusual. At 9:00 my cell door mysteriously opened. You’re free to move about the cabin! I saw the phone and walked over to it, trying to see if I could make a call using the money in my jail account. They are supposed to put it on your books, but my account was empty. Then, not really expecting anything, I tried to call my hose in Rock Creek collect again. It worked.
Mike Cherin, my wingman, picked up the phone. When I heard his voice I broke into tears. I was happy, but I was a slobbering mess of love and anger. He filled me in on what had happened. He used words like viral, thousands of phone calls, messages of support. He was not helping. My tears were now hitting the cement floor and I was shaking like a leaf. I hung up. I had another 50 minutes to roam about the day room, which was empty save for sixteen metal stools around four metal tables. I reoccupied my cell and resumed my lotus position. During the night I had begun to hallucinate and I imagined I was running the whole damned jail from my cell. Only I wasn’t hallucinating. Those phones never stopped ringing: Free Mike Roselle!
I could hear the door begin to open, rolling on its track. I stopped bawling. I regained my composure. The Bull, another jailer and a nurse entered my cell. I received them with grace. No time to complain now, everything was just as it should be. I would not talk to them. “I want to talk to my lawyer.” I was demanding now.
They were calm. Too calm.
“Mike,” the nurse said. “Did you eat anything today?”
“No, I did not,” I replied calmly.
“Did you eat anything yesterday?” she asked.
“No, I did not.”
“Have you eaten anything since you got here?”
“No ma’am, I did not.”
“When was the last time you ate anything?
“Saturday before last.”
“Are you on a hunger strike?”
“No, no!” I responded. “I am on a fast. I had planned to break it today.”
“That is not healthy, you need to eat,” she implored.
“OK,” I said. “I had planned to end it today anyway. How about a sandwich?”
“Come with us,” she said.
I did not resist. I did not know where I was going, but it could not be worse, could it? After all, I was in the hole! But I was wrong! They led me to the medical unit and asked me to sit down. I refused. I could see the gurney with the straps. I could not see a rubber hose but I felt its presence. Could I be as strong as Alice Paul and make them force feed me? At this point in time I could have done anything. I had all but left my body behind. What would it matter, I thought? Instead, I reminded them that I had not been arraigned, had not spoken with my attorney and that I was under no obligation to talk to them. “And,” I said, “I’m not even an inmate and your insurance does not cover this procedure.”
I was left alone in the medical unit, still on my feet. When the jailers returned they took me back to the holding cells and I was placed in the fish tank, a row of four cells with glass walls in front of the booking desk, where the Bulls can keep an eye on you. They had me drag my mattress and blanket to the cell and I was looking forward to finally getting some sleep. When the door closed I examined my surroundings and found them satisfactory. I did a little happy dance. Apparently, a mistake. The Bulls went crazy. They rushed into my cell and dragged me into the back room, stripped me again and put a green quilted smock on me and told me to put on a pair of orange bikini underwear.
“You are on suicide watch,” said the Bull.
“Do you think I’m going to commit suicide for trespassing?” I asked. I was actually surprised.
The smock was very short. On purpose. I saw another prisoner with one that went down to his calves. Mine was not even half way down to my knees. It was clear. They wanted to add humiliation to the list of indignities that I had so far received. Well, it wasn’t going to work. My plastic shoes were brown! Brown goes with anything! I stood in the window for a while striking a pose. Not a full on hooker in the doorway pose, no, no, much more subtle than that, but I was feeling sort of sexy in the orange bikini underwear. I still could not sleep and now they had taken my blanket and my mattress again and all I had was a cement bench, which due to the shortness of my attire I could not even sit on without freezing my hinny… And of course they had turned up the air conditioner again.
Posing got boring pretty soon and I tried doing calisthenics to keep warm. It worked pretty well but I had not eaten breakfast and it was not yet time for lunch and my energy level was starting to drop. I never got my sandwich. I looked at the cement slab. I looked over at the desk. The Bulls were going about their jobs as if nothing was happening. I could see the switch board operator on the phone. She looked haggard and frantic. Cops and prosecutors and Federal Marshals were walking around, and many were female, as was much of the jail staff. I was getting to know some of them. They would not look at me.
Giving the slab another glance I now knew what to do. I went to my bunk and laid down, using a roll of toilet paper for a pillow. The TP worked quite well as a pillow, but the slab could not be warmed by my now freezing body. I began to shiver after what seemed like a half hour or so. My teeth were now chattering but I remained still. Then I heard the noise. It was the air vent. The heat was turned on. I got up and did calisthenics until the cell got warmer. I ate lunch. I still asked to talk to my lawyer.
Tom Rist, attorney at law, likes me because he is a good lawyer and I am always getting in trouble. He had been calling all morning after being called by Mike Cherin. Now he was talking to one of the Bulls. The Bull looked at me through my glass window and seemed to be shaking his head. I was released from the cell and the Bull handed me his phone. “Tom!” I said. “What’s up?”
He of course advised me to go through with the arraignment and be released on a signature bond, what we call an O.R. bond. The bail was not reduced because they had never even set the bail. Now, all they wanted was me out of their jail, and the sooner the better. I was returned to the cell. I ate dinner. Although my arraignment was held at 10:00, I was still waiting for my paperwork. At midnight they gave me a blanket and my plastic mattress back. It was a suicide blanket and much too short for me. At least I was warm.
By now the Bulls made that very clear that they wanted me gone but there was not much they could do about it. They lost my paperwork! And by this time the entire jail staff was in on the story. Many were resentful of the long hours, low pay, and staff cuts which meant they had to work even harder. And they hated their bosses. This was not something I could perceive myself. Mike Cherin learned it in the staff smoking area, while he waited 24 hours for my imminent release. After I saw the Magistrate, who looked like he too had not slept well in days, I was given my street clothes. I was put in the lineup with all of the other newly released prisoners at 10:00. I was still in the lineup at 12:00 when they served lunch. I was in limbo and prisoners in the lineup are not fed because they are free to go. At 1:30 I walked out the front door of the jail after having come in the back door almost a week before.
I felt good. I wanted a beer.